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2 January 2005

To say that Marilynne Robinson's second novel Gilead was "long-awaited" is not mere reviewerly cliché. Robinson published Housekeeping in 1981, and for much of the next 23 years I checked bookstore racks regularly for any signs of a second novel. I've heard her read sections of a novel in progress that did not turn out to be Gilead; I've read her nonfiction with varying degrees of interest (especially her eco-political manifesto Mother Country, 1989). And then one day a few weeks ago I was in a bookstore doing some Christmas shopping and Gilead itself, unheralded, peeked out at me from between monster stacks of Colm Tóibín and T.C. Boyle.

It's not inevitable that a book I longed to read for many years should disappoint, even disappoint severely, but it's perhaps likely. Writing Housekeeping makes it almost impossible to top one's self, and Robinson hasn't really tried. By contrast to Housekeeping, Gilead is almost plotless. It's tightly restrained in terms of natural setting and human scale. Verbally garrulous and emotionally reticent, Gilead amounts to a 247-page character sketch. It lacks the intense family drama of Housekeeping; instead, Robinson continues in Gilead the theological discussions of The Death of Adam (2000), personifying them in her narrator, the elderly preacher John Ames.

John Ames is a 76-year-old man in 1956, with a much younger wife and a seven-year-old son. Stricken with a heart condition, Ames writes the text of the novel in order to tell his son things he won't get a chance to tell him while he is alive. Some of them are things about Ames's grandfather and father: respectively, a preacher who joined John Brown's terrorist raids across Kansas in the 1850s, and a preacher who turned pacifist in the light of his father's awesome example.

But most of Ames's thoughts are about the wife and son he will soon leave behind. He fears in particular that they will fall into the clutches of Jack Boughton, Ames's namesake, son of his best friend. Ames knows Boughton to be unprincipled, and worse than that, fears that Boughton is deeply and incorrigibly evil.

The multi-layered, multi-generational scope of Ames's narrative might well have produced high drama. Or it might have produced melodrama, and one senses that Robinson is at pains to avoid mere melodrama. As a result, she avoids real conflict. In particular, one huge irony hangs over the novel like a Monty-Pythonesque 16-ton weight. In the end, it never falls, leading one to wonder whether it's ever been there. But I suppose to let gigantic plot ironies squash a realistic novel is ultimately Pythonesque rather than Proustian, and Gilead is resolutely on the Proustian side of the scale.

But in avoiding melodrama, Gilead retreats into the philosophy of its narrator. John Ames is a talkative old pattern of rectitude with a wistfully lyrical love of all existence. Despite his way with phrases, one can develop a sharp impatience with Ames. He has lived his whole life in Gilead, Iowa. He's followed his father's and grandfather's calling. Widowed young, he has lived for decades on casseroles brought by neighbors, listening to baseball on the radio. Then, a beautiful young woman shows up at his church and insists on marrying him.

Ames is potentially tragic, potentially comic, potentially the center of complex satire. Of all narrators in American literature, he reminds me most of the lawyer who tells the story of "Bartleby the Scrivener"; but this is a rather elderly man with no Bartleby to interest him. Instead, Ames's narrative is full of dry theological speculations of one kind or another. When he finally confronts Jack Boughton, in a meeting that should resolve what little tension the book has so far maintained, the upshot is simply a contingent, random plot direction with modest resonance against some of the earlier themes.

If you like, I was trying mightily to make Gilead into "Bartleby"; I wanted so much for this novel to be good that I kept anticipating ways for it to deepen. It never did. It strikes me that it is seriously the story of a somewhat priggish, more than somewhat complacent old man, whose minor scrupulous arguments with himself are intended to be the stuff of vital theological exploration. I was disappointed enough in Gilead as a flat successor to Housekeeping, but Gilead may in the long run be even more of a disappointment in its own terms.

Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. New York: Farrar, 2004.